Below Kastania

This side of the Mani peninsula is a narrow belt of land between mountains and sea, untamed where the slopes are too steep to create terraces. The narrow road between the hill villages of Kastania and Saidona runs along narrow ridge through rocky maquis where swathes of pink and white cistus are flowering as well as vivid pink Silene integripetala and a diminutive golden drop Onosma erecta. A young golden eagle, identified as such by the white patches on the wings, briefly circles high above the hills and is chased by a frantic buzzard. A pair of ravens flies along the ridge. The road looks down over terraced olive groves, farms and churches; below that and beyond more olive groves is the sea and the coastal plain.

From just outside Kastania, a village that seems permanently in the shade being tucked into the corner of the hill, a well used track runs below and parellel to the Saidona road above; it passes between olive groves and a small livestock farm with great dogs that bark unceasingly.

There are orchids and a rich assortment of plants along the road and in the olive groves. The buzz of the insects is constant and loud; the sun has arrived and appears set to stay; with tall grasses beginning to dominate the vegetation and pink Greek sage and yellow Jerusalem sage starting to go over, spring is turning swiftly into summer.

The track reaches the large old church Moni Panagias Faneromenis opposite an empty cowshed. In front of the beautiful, large door is a flowering lilac. Within the cool and dark interior, there are massive stone pillars, wall paintings, hung pictures, a lighted candle and a huge cross; there is the usual stack of chairs on one side and a plastic water bottle by the candle is a reminder of the modern world outside.

On a ridge above it, sheltered by a line of great oaks in fresh green leaf is the ancient, recently restored, church of Ai Stratigos; it is reached by a footpath up through the olive groves between old stone walls with waist deep flowers and grasses full of insects. With its rare cloisonné arches it looks more Norman than Byzantine but the church dates to around 1150 and is, apparently, one of most important on the Mani. There is an excellent review here of the rescue of the ruined church by the restoration team.

The unmade road leads on and there is a network of tracks that either winds down to Lefkro or across to Proastio. This empty, ancient land of the upland olive groves is very much as it would have looked centuries, perhaps millennia ago; its many treasures freely shared.

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